Recruiting skilled workers is the #1 barrier to growth for Montana high tech and manufacturing firms. Whether hiring software developers, machinists, or lawyers, Montana employers face similar challenges. Based on conversations with members around the state, here are a dozen ways to attract the best talent.
Advertise to Alumni – Come Home to Montana is an Easier Sell
Many employers find it challenging to convince outsiders (or their spouses) to relocate to Montana. It’s easier to make the case to Montana natives, people who came here to go to school, or those with a personal connection to the state.
RightNow Technologies in Bozeman (now Oracle) targeted Montana alumni lists to attract talent to a global business with more than 1,100 employees. Mailing postcards about fly fishing in the summer and skiing in the winter generated stacks of resumes. Leveraging alumni networks, RightNow founder Greg Gianforte even found candidates with highly-specialized skills, like accountants who spoke Japanese.
Get ‘em Fresh Out of College – Start Early to Hire the Best
On May 1, 2015 the UM Computer Science department hosted its first career fair just for CS students. Some initially questioned whether the event would work, but changed their tunes when 18 companies showed up, including Alliance members Workiva, Zoot Enterprises, Helix Business Solutions, Advanced Technology Group, EDULOG, The Audience Awards, , Alter Enterprise, GCS, and Point Six Solutions (formerly snapApps).
To fuel growth, tech and manufacturing firms are getting more aggressive about recruiting top Montana college grads. They go to career fairs, speak in classes, and hire well-paid interns. Top students start building relationships with recruiters as freshmen and sophomores. Graduates in hot fields like computer science often have multiple job offers. Reach out early (and often) to have a shot at the best.
Stock the Fridge – Offer Silicon Valley Style Perks
At growing Montana tech firms, fridges are full of Rockstar, Hint water, and craft beer. Break rooms feature video games and exercise equipment. Flexible schedules, free lunch, and happy hours are weekly (or daily) perks. Add easy access to skiing, mountain biking, and the downtown social scene, and Montana becomes a tech worker’s vision of paradise – like a modern “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
Bottom line: Paying well and offering good benefits is huge, but employee expectations are shifting toward fun. Keep up with your neighbors, or your applicant pool might get shallow.
Geo-Target the Right Regions – Avoid the East Coast
The consensus among employers at the CEO roundtable was that some parts of the country are better recruiting grounds for Montana than others. They had zero success on the East Coast and some success in the Southeastern states. But the best regions to recruit from seem to be the Midwest – think Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin – and the Pacific Northwest.
Ride the Winds of Change – Go Where the Bubbles Have Burst
Montana employers get results advertising in regions where booms have slowed and companies are downsizing. During the 2001 dot com bust, RightNow Technologies placed one ad in the San Francisco Chronicle that said “We’re hiring” and received 2,500 resumes. While times have changed in tech, new opportunities exist to attract underemployed workers in the Bakken and other oil patches.
Beware of the Blackout Period – Target Young Parents and Empty Nesters
For the best chances with job candidates, pay attention to life stages. Montana employers have noticed a blackout period in recruiting. If a prospect has preschoolers or kids out of high school, they seem more eager to come back to Montana. If the kids are in grade school, they are less likely to move.
Feature Our Strengths – Appeal to Small Town Natives, Outdoor Enthusiasts, and Frustrated Commuters
Recruiting is easier if one or both partners grew up in a small town and/or want to leave a big city. The Montana lifestyle is not for everyone, but it’s also one of our strongest selling points. There’s no commuting! We’re always out of the house! The joke at the roundtable was that 80 percent of out-of-state hires had Montana connections and the rest were hunting and fishing fools.
Embrace a Work Hard/Play Hard Culture – Offer Enough Time Off
With Montana’s beauty and quality of life, time off is an important benefit for workers. Some fast-growing companies find it’s hard to give enough paid vacation when customer demand is high and they need all hands on deck. But smart Montana employers know giving team members time to go skiing, hiking, and fishing to recharge is crucial to long-term retention.
Don’t Miss the Treasure in Your Own Backyard – Dig up Hidden Local Talent
Given the many challenges of recruiting out of state, Alliance members are getting creative and tapping hidden sources of local talent. For example:
- Lewistown manufacturers like Spika Welding are reaching out to women (including housewives whose kids have left home) with the message that their industry is clean, high-tech, high-paying, and willing to train motivated candidates. They also go into local high schools with the same message.
- Software and IT companies are pulling good prospects out of the basements of government agencies (especially convenient when salaries are public information).
- Non-traditional students in Montana’s two and four-year colleges offer experience, maturity, and loyalty to employers willing to take a chance on a jagged resume.
Take the Relationship for a Test Run – Consider Contracting, Consulting, and Internships
Temporary contracts can offer a measure of security and flexibility to both employers and job candidates. Some case studies:
- Montana technology recruiter Kathy Boelter, founder of Arrow Solutions Group, does a large majority of her business placing contractors. “Anyone will come to do a project here,” Boelter said. Some contractors even camp at the KOA to get the full Montana experience. Using contractors can be a solution on its own, or a way to find future full-time employees.
- Greg Gianforte, founder of RightNow Technologies, used consulting projects as part of the hiring process, paying job candidates to try them out. He also recruited clients whose frequent interactions with the company and Montana eventually convinced them to join RightNow.
- Travis Cottom of Helix Business Solutions in Dillon has created an internship program at the University of Montana – Western to train interested students in their software systems and then recruit the best-fit candidates for full-time employment.
- Sherri Davidoff, founder of LMG Security in Missoula, teaches classes in Cyber Security at the University of Montana, infusing local talent with the skill sets she needs to grow her company.
Find Strength in Numbers – Industry Groups Make Recruiting Easier
A major challenge of recruiting in Montana – particularly in specialized fields – is convincing prospective employees to come to a state that doesn’t appear to have a larger industry. Candidates are afraid of what will happen if they move to Montana and the job they came for doesn’t work out. Joint promotion with fellow employers can allay these fears and show workers the strength of a bigger industry. The Lewistown manufacturers in the Central Montana Manufacturers’ Alliance are a great example of this concept.
A company down the road may occasionally lure away one of your best people. But in the long run, you’ll have an easier time recruiting if your state or region has strong demand for talent from multiple employers. Employees gain confidence that they can build a career in Montana, and not just settle for a one-off job.
When a worker is laid off, bored, or ready for a promotion, other local employers can pick up the talent and keep them in the community. Employees who leave on good terms to become entrepreneurs themselves can further strengthen local economies and industry clusters.
Always Be Recruiting – Even When You’re Not
Best practice in Montana is to be proactively recruiting every second – whether you’re hiring or not. Many Alliance employers have a standing policy of welcoming all comers, taking resumes or even taking prospects to lunch regardless of whether they have an opening.
Leaders in recruiting take the long view, recognizing that Montana kids of today are the workforce of tomorrow. They mentor middle and high school kids who love computers and robots in the hopes of inspiring our brightest students to stay in Montana. That high school kid you coach today could be your most valuable employee five or ten years from now.
By Christina Henderson, Executive Director
Photo Caption: Students visit with 18 Montana employers at the UM Computer Science Career Fair May 1, 2015 at the University Center. Photo courtesy of UM CS Dept. blog.